Arthur Clarke on Digital Divide and ICTs

[via Anish] Excerpts from an interview in OneWorld South Asia (related to the Digital Divide and the role of ICTs):

A major concern is that not every one of us benefits equally from these technologies. The communications revolution has bypassed tens of millions of people, and something needs to be done about it.

We are now reaching the point in our technological evolution when we can and must – commit more time and resources to solving the problems of poverty, deprivation and inequality.

Virtually everything we wish to do in the field of communications is now technologically possible. The only limitations are financial, legal or political. In time, I am sure, most of these will also disappear – leaving us with only limitations imposed by our own morality.

The Information Age offers much to mankind, and I would like to think that we will rise to the challenges it presents. But it is vital to remember that information in the sense of raw data is not knowledge; that knowledge is not wisdom; and that wisdom is not foresight. But information is the first essential step to all of these.

ICTs should be part of a wider solution that needs to be applied with care and caution. Information and communications technologies should be part of the solution, and not the only solution.

There have always been disparities in this world the digital divide is just the latest manifestation. I think we need to take a few steps back from the digital hype and first try to bridge the Analog Divide that has for so long affected the less endowed communities and countries.

A computer in every classroom is a noble goal provided there is a physical classroom in the first place. A multimedia computer with Internet connectivity is of little use in a school with leaking roofs or with no roof at all. The top priorities in such cases are to have the basic infrastructure and adequate teachers.

And we have to be careful that we dont create new problems while solving existing problems. The information age has been driven and dominated by technopreneurs a small army of geeks who have reshaped our world faster than any political leader has ever done. And that was the easy part. We now have to apply these technologies in saving lives, improving livelihoods and lifting millions of people out of squalor, misery and suffering. In other words, our focus must now move from the geeks to the meek.

Clarke sees voice recognition as the next big thing:

I see voice recognition as the next major step forward which will also overcome current limitations of literacy and make ICTs truly accessible to millions of people.

Voice recognition systems that are now coming into use enable users to bypass the keyboard and dictate inputs directly. But these systems still have some limitations: while they are very valuable for those working alone, imagine the chaos that a whole officeful of talkers could produce!

Besides, the software has to cope with a huge diversity of accents in which the same language is spoken. I cannot resist quoting from my own first attempts to train one of the best current systems. When I said, Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party, the programme revealed its impressive vocabulary with a startling display of political incorrectness: Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of apartheid.

But its only a matter of time before this capability will improve and VR applications will proliferate. Better and more sensitive voice recognition systems will iron out current difficulties and make us less dependent on keyboards.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.